Apple Showcases Its VR Dreams—With a U2 Video
So U2 has a new music video. It’s being presented by Apple Music. Neither of these things count as “news”—hell, Bono is the silhouette that signaled “Artists” in iTunes for years. There is one reason, though, why you should take note of the “Song for Someone” clip: It’s virtual reality.
Created by Chris Milk and his VR company Vrse, the experience—which made a soft debut on an Apple-branded bus outside the band’s London show at O2 Arena this weekend and is now available on the Vrse app—ties together images of the band playing the song in an empty Toronto venue with fans singing the Songs of Innocence track all over the world. More importantly, it also shows that Apple, one of the largest technology companies in the world and one very focused on creatives, is finally showing public-facing interest in virtual reality.
“It was an amazing experience working with the people at Apple on this project,” says Milk. “[Apple Music head] Jimmy Iovine is, of course, interested in music and innovation and has been a huge supporter of this project from the beginning—and was instrumental in making it come to fruition.”
Like with the 360-degree experience Apple Music co-sponsored (along with GoPro) for The Weeknd’s “The Hills (Remix)” video, the “Song for Someone” project is the tech giant showing an interest in VR that it previously hadn’t shown publicly.
Apple’s partnership with Vrse for the U2 experience has actually been in the works since two months before Apple Music even launched. When asked what the company’s involvement means for its future plans, however, the streaming service’s head of content, Larry Jackson, would only give a “no comment.” Jackson, though, did allow that Apple’s support for the piece “signals and symbolizes something,” adding that Apple Music is already working on a similar partnership with Vrse to make a “post-apocalyptic action film” in VR for the band Muse.
The U2 experience starts with an Apple Music logo and ends with a call to action to listen to more of the band’s tracks on the service. But that could be just the beginning. “You’re on the phone, you’re connected to everything else on the phone,” Milk says. “Why can’t one app play with another app nicely?” (The answer to this question may lie in Apple’s recent hunt for a developer to “create high performance apps that integrate with virtual reality systems for prototyping and user testing.”) There’s no reason that VR running on smartphones—like Vrse’s app does using Google Cardbard—couldn’t link people out to any number of things their iPhone. Enjoy that kaiju experience you’re watching? Maybe you’ll enjoy this monster movie on Netflix! Moved by that VR Ebola documentary? Join a Facebook page or make a donation by clicking here.
Make no mistake, the U2 VR experience is a small step, but it signifies great things&even;if they’re a long time coming.
Jimmy Iovine was instrumental in making it come to fruition. Chris Milk
Five months ago, Milk was holed up in a garage behind his house, working on the video—and today was looking a long way off. He’d shattered his knee skiing in Utah, and was left to do most of his work from bed while the dozen-plus pins in his knee healed. He’d just gotten notes from the band on the next round of edits to the video, had likely already received more email than most of us get in a whole day—including one about doing a second TED Talk in 2016—and was trying to leave for the first of many meetings of the day, including one with Sony’s president of Worldwide Studios, Shuhei Yoshida, to discuss Project Morpheus. It was almost 11 a.m.
Milk may now be known as the CEO of Vrse, the VR company he cofounded with the former head of Google’s Data Arts team Aaron Koblin, but he was actually a music video director long before he became the future of VR. (If you enjoyed a Kanye West video during the College Dropout era, you probably have Milk to thank.) So the notes he can handle, even if they will take more time to implement in recuperation mode; it’s the part that Jay Z would call “CEO-ing” that’s new to him.
“What you’re witnessing is the major crux of the pressure I, myself, am feeling,” he says. “I’m getting my creative notes for a project I’ve directed, and now we’re going to go do a meeting with Sony purely about our businesses working together. As a director there are stances you can take that are maybe not stances I can take as a CEO of a company.”
Later, on the ride to his first meeting of the day, Milk will say that he’s enjoying being a CEO “more than I thought I possibly would,” but it’s when he’s talking about the making of the U2 video that he gets most animated.
He hands me googles and shows me a VR video of a young woman named Amanda Dobos. She’s a hardcore U2 fan—she once made a plan to marry Bono for a high school project—and now that she’s engaged (not to Bono), she’s had to choose between the band and wedding planning.
“A U2 show is about $70,” she narrates in a voice-over. “That doesn’t seem like too much when you’re thinking about things in the big picture, but when you have little things to get for a wedding like invitations or just little things like that, $70 is really a lot. You gotta step back and say, ‘I have to accept that I can’t go this time.’”
Eventually, the VR experience moves on to Dobos singing “Song for Someone” in her Los Angeles apartment…when Bono walks in and lends his voice to the effort. She did not know this was coming, but manages to hold it together long enough to finish the song. The bit ends with clapping and Bono saying he was “very humbled to hear you sing one of my songs.” I’m crying.
We had a team working 24 hours a day in shifts on casting. The casting for ‘Song for Someone’ was a true testament to advances in technology. ‘Song for Someone’ producer Ari Palitz
And that was one of the entries that didn’t ultimately make the cut. That scene, and the ones that did make the final VR experience, are part of a filming marathon that Milk and Vrse.works (the company’s production arm) did in 11 countries all over the world, from France to Thailand. All told, there were three different crews in three different time zones capturing footage of people who’d responded to the band’s call for submissions online or whom the producers had found on the web.
“We had a team working 24 hours a day in shifts on casting,” says producer Ari Palitz. “[It] was a true testament to advances in technology. We would find a performer we liked on YouTube, then once we were able to contact them and make sure they were available, we would present them all to Chris to choose from. If he picked them, we would either slot them into our shooting schedule, or shift our schedule and fly to where they lived.”
So, yes, “Song for Someone” was a massive undertaking. But again, this was just one step in a larger project in an even bigger year for Vrse.
In 2015, Milk announced Vrse and premiered a project called Clouds Over Sidra at the Sundance Film Festival, collaborated with The New York Times, created a VR documentary about Ebola with the UN, filmed the 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Live in VR, and given the aforementioned TED Talk, which he prepped in under a week and gave despite what he calls a “morbid fear of public speaking.”
On the day Milk took a million(ish) meetings and worked on the U2 edit, we sat down in his living room as the sun went down outside and I asked how long his days usually got. (Short answer: They go from the first email check at 8 a.m. until dinner at 10 p.m., followed by more email.) While a lot of his time is spent on projects like the U2 video, a lot of it is also spent essentially explaining VR to people—be they network executives or future business or creative partners. I ask if it gets boring; in response, he brings up Kanye West.
“There’s something I said to Kanye a long time ago,” Milk said, “which was ‘Don’t you get sick of playing those songs on stage every night?’ And he said, ‘No, because it’s not about the playing of the song, it’s about the reaction you’re getting from people.’ It’s the same thing for VR. It’s a transportive, transformative technology.”